LONDON — British Airways will retire its entire fleet of Boeing 747 airplanes, the company said on Friday, citing the travel downturn and the aircraft’s high operating costs.
The decision marked not just the finish of a storied plane’s service with the company but also symbolized the end of an era of aviation in which the next generation of planes was always expected to be bigger, as well as better. Even 50 years after their introduction, the sight of 747s gliding into their docks, dwarfing other planes, could evoke a thrill in the most jaded of travelers.
The world’s first jumbo jet, known as the “Queen of the Skies,” the 747 revolutionized travel for the masses, but in recent years it had fallen out of favor with a number of airlines because of the costs.
The final commercial flight of a Boeing 747 by an American carrier took place at the end of 2017. But British Airways had held on, operating the world’s largest fleet of the planes, with 31 in service. A handful of other commercial carriers still fly the 747, though their use is expected to further dwindle in the coming years.
“It is with great sadness that we can confirm we are proposing to retire our entire 747 fleet with immediate effect,” British Airways said in a statement. “It is unlikely our magnificent ‘Queen of the Skies’ will ever operate commercial services for British Airways again due to the downturn in travel caused by the Covid-19 global pandemic.”
When the Boeing 747 began service in 1970, it was the height of modern travel technology, with room for 27 first class and 292 economy class passengers. Its iconic, humped upper deck, equipped with a lounge, or “club in the sky,” became synonymous with luxury travel.
With a tail height equivalent to a six-story building and a wingspan equal to 50 parked cars, the 747 was part of a period of innovation that saw engineers develop larger and larger planes that could be filled with more passengers and in that way drive down ticket prices.
But fuel costs in 1970 were so negligible that they were barely a factor in the airlines’ financial strategies. In recent years, advances in technology made the four-engine 747 far pricier to operate than modern twin-engine planes.
The move is especially poignant for British Airways, which received its first Boeing 747-400 in 1989 and its last in April 1999. The predecessor of British Airways, BOAC, began flying versions of the 747 in the early 1970s. At the height of the craft’s deployment, British Airways had 57 of the jumbo jets and was the second-biggest operator of the planes, after Japan Airlines, which had more than 100 in its fleet.
Some commercial carriers still operate passenger flights on the 747, including Air China, Korean Air and Lufthansa. A number of companies, including UPS, also use the 747 freighter to transport cargo.
Other airlines have also recently retired their fleets, including Qantas of Australia, which accelerated plans to do so because of the coronavirus pandemic and held had a series of farewell flights for the last of its 747s this week. The final 747 in that airline’s fleet will depart Sydney later this month and be stored in the Mojave Desert in California.
The last order for a passenger version of the 747 came from the U.S. government, which in 2017 commissioned two of the jets from Boeing for use by the president, as Air Force One aircraft. The planes — a repurposed version of the 747-8 — are scheduled for delivery in 2024.
Bloomberg News reported this month that Boeing had quietly pulled the plug on production of the 747.
Some parts of the British Airways fleet may fly again, with engine components and metal from the fuselage often stripped for other uses. For the most part, however, specialist companies are hired to dismantle and scrap planes that airlines no longer fly.
British Airways was set to retire the last of its Boeing 747s in 2024, but as the coronavirus saw travel grind to a halt, threatening the finances of airlines the world over, that time frame was pushed forward. British Airways has been a company in crisis since the pandemic began, with the financial fallout threatening thousands of jobs.
In April, the carrier’s parent, the Madrid-based International Airlines Group, announced plans to restructure British Airways that could result in up to 12,000 people losing their jobs.